Thursday, June 28, 2007

Article: In pursuit of painted buntings

Not all birds are created equal

About a month ago I was out horseback riding when a strikingly colored bird flitted by. I caught only a glimpse knew immediately that it was a painted bunting, Passerina ciris. I’m no bird expert but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify a male painted bunting.

The Peterson Field Guide, Birds of Texas begins its description of this bird with “The most gaudily colored American bird.” There’s no mistaking it. The chest and belly of the male are as bright red as any cardinal, the head more brilliantly blue than a blue jay and there is a startling patch of yellow-green on its back blending to dark green feathers on the upper wing. No child would color a bird so fancifully.

I followed the painted bunting I’d spotted until it perched in the uppermost reaches of a large juniper (also known as “cedar”). Against the overcast sky, the primary colors of the bunting’s plumage disappeared into black silhouette. It soon flew to a farther location. Since it had started raining--again--I suspended the chase. But while unsaddling my horse, I was surprised to see that same bird chase a tiny hummingbird off the apex of a skeletal tree.

In the morning I was a woman on a mission. I hoped the painted bunting was staying near the house and I was determined to get a photograph. Nearly ever year, we see one or two of these birds but they disappear almost as soon as they appear. I imagined they didn’t like the mix of vegetation around our property and were headed to the Hill Country where an elusive bird could remain unseen by human eyes. I needed to get my photograph before the bird moved on.

So I grabbed my camera and dragged an old lawn chair out to the juniper where I’d seen the bird the previous day. I sat as still as I could while mosquitoes bit me and abundant gnats crawled all over my face and arms. It was worth it though because the ploy worked. Within a half-hour I had some half-way decent photographs.

Through my camera’s viewfinder, I watched the sparrow-sized bird sing. What a beautiful song it was! Longer and more complex than the songs of typical birds on our property, the painted bunting’s song has the distinction of containing no repeated notes or phrases. I quickly learned to recognize it.

The next morning I heard that song while feeding the horses. I rushed to get my camera. Slowly, quietly, I followed the auditory trail. Soon I spotted the bird perched, again, on the ultimate pinnacle of a juniper. Looking up, I should have seen the brilliant red of its belly. Instead the backlighting caused the entire bird to appear black

The next day I heard the song again and made another mad dash for my camera. The bird flew from the top of a near juniper to one in a dense copse of trees. However, I noticed something strange--that distinctive song was coming from more than one location. I had at least two of the magnificent birds living with me!

On the following day, I carried my camera out while I fed the horses and was rewarded with another sighting. Again the bird was near the top of a juniper but at least this time I could see it was red. As I walked to the front pasture I heard at least two other birds calling. Suddenly it seemed I could hear that song everywhere.

Apparently painted buntings are one of the more common birds on our property. I’m not sure if this was always true. It’s possible I just never noticed them before. Despite their almost ridiculously distinctive colors, small birds that perch on the tops of trees are easily overlooked. Or it could be that mulching of many of the junipers on our property this spring changed our land into prime bunting habitat. Either way, the little birds are now driving me crazy. I carry my camera everywhere--when it’s not raining--constantly on the lookout for buntings in photogenic poses. Someday I will get that perfect photo.


Some nice photos:

Photo: From the bottom painted buntings look solid red.Photo: Singing from the treetops!

Photo: This one perched on a sunflower and darted into the grass to eat seeds.
Photo: Even when they're blurred they make a pretty picture.


Coral said...

That's my favorite bird. Could it be that you and I have the same favorite bird as well as the same favorite wildlife management area? What are the chances!

namacuix said...

Me too! That's my favourite bird. Really I've heard they're everyone's favourite birds.

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